What is "good music" - Whatever we like?

All topics musical, not specifically piano-related

Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Thu Aug 23, 2007 8:34 am

pianissimo wrote:This is starting to get interesting. Do we need to consider that as far as audience/listener appeal, the music and the artist(s) are factors? Would an excellent musician, but trained in the Western classical tradition be able to play ragas and have the same effect?

I don't think anyone would argue that different performances of "good music" can't resonate in different ways with different people and groups. As I've discussed earlier in this thread, that's probably one of the prime reasons that there are many recordings of some works with different artists and different interpretations. In some broad sense, all those performances are equally valid (assuming they use the same or at least an accepted score) from a purely factual standpoint, but their impact is different.

Your question about whether a Western musician could have the same effect playing ragas that an Indian musician could is another with tremendous implications. To understand what I mean by that, let me generalize your question with a few very closely related ones. Would an Indian band, playing American rock music, have the "same effect" as an American band playing the same work? Should Bach or Beethoven be played only by Germans or are German performances of German composers necessarily "definitive"? If any music is, by any definition you prefer, good music, does it become bad music because it is played by one non-native to the culture of its origin? I would say that good music will have a universality that goes beyond the culture of its origin.

I just don't think there should necessarily be anything specially "magic" about performances of "good music" by those who grew up with it. Perhaps a Western musician can't reach Shankar's level of expertise and interpretation on the sitar; perhaps one can. I don't think that's a critical issue. For example, would you say that "Americans can't play Russian music properly" because an American student with a year's training probably can't play Rachmaninov's Etudes Tableaux "properly"?

In another thread, we had a long discussion about digital pianos and electronic music. One member argued that one could only play piano music properly on the acoustic piano. I suggested that that position was a little too confining, since, by that same argument, one should only be able to play J.S. Bach on a harpsichord. I pointed out that the most popular classical music recording of all time (triple platinum LP, plus many more CD sales) is a 70's era recording of of Bach standards ("Switched-On Bach"), done by Wendy Carlos on the first Moog synthesizer. Was it what "Bach intended"? Certainly not, since Bach could not have imagined in his day anything even remotely like the synthesizer.

That same member argued that "Switched-On Bach" is "the worst thing that ever happened to old JSB," or words to that effect. That member was, and is, entitled to his views and personal preferences, but he would be substantially outvoted by the many millions who paid good money to buy "Switched-On Bach". For most of those people, it's probably the only classical music they had ever heard at that time, let alone liked. I would submit that those recordings worked in a medium pretty foreign to Bach's original compositions for harpsichord or voice precisely because the works had the universality of good music.

To finish this peroration, let me simply say that good music remains good music, whether it's rendered in the same way in all recordings or not. Indeed, good music allows and encourages multiple interpretations. Perhaps, we could add that to our list of the qualities of good music. :)




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Postby 112-1182392787 » Thu Aug 23, 2007 9:49 am

I am under the impression that much "good music" also has a lot of substance to it. In order to be able to perform that music, one does not need magic, nor perhaps the magic of cultural immersion in order to get the feel for the music -- the musician needs intellectual knowledge, physical training of the body and ear. Each set of music, especially when set apart by vastly differing cultures and traditions, has this kind of background.

One example: Indian music has microtones, and those microtones give meaning to the music. Ear training with pitch recognition is even more important for the Indian musician than for the Western musician playing an instrument where pitch is not predetermined. We literally cannot hear the differences. We can hear the difference between C and C#, but we cannot hear the difference between one, two, or three tones lying between the C and the C#. How can we play what we cannot hear? If the essence of the genre lies in interpreting through these pitch nuances, how will we become expressive through pitch, if we cannot hear it? We do have some of these pitch relationships in our music: the semitone in the third and fourth degree of a scale is smaller than a semitone elsewhere, and the closeness of this semitone creates musical movement and completion - therefore we are at least partially sensitized toward it. George Harrison diligently studied the essence of Indian music, and earned Ravi's respect by doing so, and the music of the Beatles was then flavoured by the device of pitch expressing emotion.

It takes years of disciplined training to master these skills: in that sense a Western musician, without that training - i.e. the ability to recognize and produce microtones - would not be able to reproduce the same music. As an audience, we Westerners might not recognize what is missing, though we might feel something is missing, though we could not put our finger on it.

Should Bach or Beethoven be played only by Germans or are German performances of German composers necessarily "definitive"? .... I would say that good music will have a universality that goes beyond the culture of its origin.

Bach or Beethoven are best played by someone who has the training to play music of that genre. There may be a native citizen of China, India, or Ghana, who is more suited to play this music than a native German living in Germany, or European or American. It is not a question of cultural background, but of skill and knowledge.

If the essence of good music in any genre revolves around certain attributes, then the musician must be able to express those attributes. Both George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin worked diligently over a longer period of time to master the intricacies of the Indian music, and then they were able to transmit some of the qualities of this music to their audiences, or adopt these qualities to Western music (?)
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Thu Aug 23, 2007 10:25 am

pianissimo wrote:I am under the impression that much "good music" also has a lot of substance to it. In order to be able to perform that music, one does not need magic, nor perhaps the magic of cultural immersion in order to get the feel for the music -- the musician needs intellectual knowledge, physical training of the body and ear. Each set of music, especially when set apart by vastly differing cultures and traditions, has this kind of background.

...

If the essence of good music in any genre revolves around certain attributes, then the musician must be able to express those attributes. Both George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin worked diligently over a longer period of time to master the intricacies of the Indian music, and then they were able to transmit some of the qualities of this music to their audiences, or adopt these qualities to Western music (?)

It seems to me that your arguments would lead to some pretty substantial contradictions (IMHO :D ). Music badly performed (by whatever standard you feel is appropriate to your own way of thinking) is badly performed music, not "bad music", necessarily. For example, the acoustic piano simply cannot produce the sound of the harpsichord (a good digital piano can), no matter how superb the artist playing it. If your standard of judging Bach keyboard music is that it must sound exactly like the instrument for which it was written, then all Bach keyboard music performed on the piano must be "bad music", by that standard. Harrison and Menuhin worked hard to produce "authentic" Indian sound, but I doubt they would have argued that their sound was identical to "real Indian"; in fact, I doubt that they or any other performers would want to reproduce exactly any performance.

Neither does the performance define "good music" in any meaningful and general sense that I can see (as opposed to judgments of that individual performance specifically), nor does good music define the performance (i.e. music recognized by many people as good doesn't assure that every performance of it is good). Although I can understand what you're saying about the importance of being being properly trained, a view that proper training alone (even if augmented with absorption in the relevant cultural milieu) defines good music seems to rob music of any universality at all, a situation seemingly at odds with the way the world works in judging some music to be worth multiple recordings with different interpretations by different people in different cultures and largely disregarding other music.

Perhaps I don't understand where you're going with this argument. It does seem to lead pretty directly to some serious contradictions, if it's what it appears to be to me. In particular, I'm concerned that it could lead to a kind of "cultural chauvinism" (for lack of a better term), where good music is defined only by, and in the terms of, its originators. Surely, that would be at odds with most people's perceptions of musical universality. :)




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Postby 112-1182392787 » Thu Aug 23, 2007 11:41 am

I am finding difficulty in the fact that we are discussion listener reaction to music, and therefore we are immediately in the rhealm of the performer, and not only the music by itself. Therefore I chose to look at this side of it also. Maybe that was too large of an expansion.

In considering performance, I was considering attributes of music. This has nothing to do with the difference between a harpsichord, electric piano, and real piano. The attributes can be part of the language of the music, and when this language is not understood, then the essence of the music is lost - therefore its attributes.

An example would be the microtone in Indian music.

Western classical music for a long time period expresses mood through harmony. Indian music expresses mood through pitch. The universal aspect of both genres is that they use something involving pitch variations and relationships to express mood. The larger aspect is that they both have a language consisting of complex variables, and when that language is spoken well, in both the writing and interpretation, it creates good music.

Perhaps I don't understand the question properly.
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Thu Aug 23, 2007 12:11 pm

pianissimo wrote:I am finding difficulty in the fact that we are discussion listener reaction to music, and therefore we are immediately in the rhealm of the performer, and not only the music by itself. ..



Western classical music for a long time period expresses mood through harmony. Indian music expresses mood through pitch. The universal aspect of both genres is that they use something involving pitch variations and relationships to express mood. The larger aspect is that they both have a language consisting of complex variables, and when that language is spoken well, in both the writing and interpretation, it creates good music.

Perhaps I don't understand the question properly.

I think that might be the source of the problem. The way the question was originally phrased and then clarified, it is not about "listener reaction" to music, but about those things that cause many listeners all over the world and at different times to adjudge music as having special worth, in all the ways we've defined it.

It can't be about an individual performance, per se, since everybody hears different performances of, to use an example used earlier, the Beethoven 5th Symphony. I have about ten different CD performances of it and have heard it live at least twice that many times, but I don't see it as suddenly becoming bad music, just because I don't happen to like a particular performance or interpretation, or for that matter, as becoming good music because I enjoy another performance. The music stands on its own in my judgments about its qualities. I think most people would characterize a particular performance that they liked as "a good performance of the Beethoven 5th" rather than saying that "the Beethoven 5th has become good music now because I like that performance."

I'm not devaluing the critical role of the musician in bringing the music to life at all. Rather, I'm saying good music will be recognized as such by many people, who will have expectations of the performer to render it in a manner that does the work itself justice. The quality of a given performance reflects on the performer(s), not on the music. Of course, if the music itself is poor by their standards, most performers won't want to perform it and it will die out.
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Postby 112-1182392787 » Thu Aug 23, 2007 12:15 pm

If your standard of judging Bach keyboard music is that it must sound exactly like the instrument for which it was written, then all Bach keyboard music performed on the piano must be "bad music", by that standard.


You have mentioned before that there has been a disagreement about instruments. My understanding of music, and of keyboard instruments, is still in its infancy. What I do understand is that in performing and interpreting music, the language of that music should be understood - phrasing, conventions - and that this language has been written into the music. Thus my hypothetical person in Indian, who has studied the nature of this kind of music, would know how to understand and interpret Bach, whereas my hypothetical German person who has not studied these things, might not know how to interpret the music. Several people playing the same piece would, nonetheless, interpret it differently, but within those general parameters.

I play a string instrument, a wind instrument, a percussion instrument (piano), and I sing. I have played Baroque music on each of these instruments. There are attributes that remain the same, although the instrument would impose differences.

However, I think I have expanded this discussion beyond its original purpose by bringing in performance.
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Thu Aug 23, 2007 12:42 pm

pianissimo wrote:However, I think I have expanded this discussion beyond its original purpose by bringing in performance.

That's OK. No problem. It might be worth starting a separate thread on the aspects of performance which differentiate "good" performance from "poor" performance. That might be simpler to get at than this topic is! I'll leave that to you if you're interested. :D
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Postby Stretto » Thu Aug 23, 2007 10:42 pm

In the area of performance of a piece, there could be some "good music" that has been written that never got a chance to be loved and heard through the ages because the music was never given the priviledge of a quality performance. So the quality of the performance or specific performer has to make a difference somewhere along the line as to whether music stays around. Some music is performed but never really catches on and then some other performer records it and suddenly it's famous and passed on through the ages. Was it "bad" music initially although written by the same composer and then became "good" music after a higher quality performance? Music probably has to have a "good" performance initially to get a start towards it's quest in transcending time. Subsequent poor performances wouldn't suddenly make the music bad. But lots of poor performances with never the opportunity of a "good" performance, a piece isn't likely to get any kind of foothold however "good" the piece may be.

What about the audience? Music has to be played to the right audiences initially as well as over time to "catch on" and remain through the years. Is it not "good music" because it was never heard by the right audience(s) at the right time?

A composition might meet our definitions of depth/quality in and of itself but that alone doesn't mean that composition will still be famous 100 years later.




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Fri Aug 24, 2007 9:02 am

Stretto wrote:In the area of performance of a piece, there could be some "good music" that has been written that never got a chance to be loved and heard through the ages because the music was never given the priviledge of a quality performance. ... So the quality of the performance or specific performer has to make a difference somewhere along the line as to whether music stays around. Music probably has to have a "good" performance initially to get a start towards it's quest in transcending time. ...But lots of poor performances with never the opportunity of a "good" performance, a piece isn't likely to get any kind of foothold however "good" the piece may be.

What about the audience? Music has to be played to the right audiences initially as well as over time to "catch on" and remain through the years. Is it not "good music" because it was never heard by the right audience(s) at the right time?

I think these are all good points and may well be true in a few (or many) cases. Even though my original question and subsequent clarifications have tried to separate the individual from the worldwide, and the transient from the lasting, I'll give my views on these aspects pertaining to specific performances, since there seems to be a continuing interest.

First, at least in the modern era, virtually all new works being premiered are prepared (and often conducted or played) by the composer. I've been around a couple times as an interested by-stander for, and, in one case, partially financed, the preparation by orchestras of a new work. The attention to detail and the degree of input from the composer was truly gratifying. The composer was present in both cases for every part of the preparation and, of course, for the performance. If a good performance can't be achieved under those circumstances, then I don't know how it could be so under any circumstances. Of course, for a smaller scale work (chamber music, for example), the composer almost always can choose the people who premiere the work and the venue of the premiere, since he invariably knows enough players to accomplish a proper premiere and has access to a venue for small work performance. I think what you're saying could be true and probably is true in some times and cases, but I doubt that it's common these days for premieres of many new works.

The bigger problem for the composer, especially the composer of orchestral works, is simply finding an interested music director. That music director must make an informed judgment about the quality of the music and its worth for premiere without ever actually hearing the work performed by the orchestra prior to making the decision. This is a good example of how a talented person can "hear" the music in his mind, completely divorced from the performance, and make a decision about its worth, based on the score alone.

I would like to think that those of us who attend performances can have a real impact on the perception of a work in the long term. Sadly, our opinions are almost never heard, except among the relatively small circle of our friends and families. The people whose opinions really count in influencing the perception of a new work are the critics, because their views reach a wide group of people, and some influential musicians, because they are in a position to make decisions about which works get played.

Sometimes, some of them are wrong, too. A famous example is that of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. Tchaikovsky played a piano reduction of the score for the famous and influential conductor of the time, Hans von Bulow, who promptly denounced the work as "unplayable" among other less than favorable comments. Tchaikovsky took the work to Boston, where it was premiered by the BSO. Most critics (and the audience) there praised it. It was then played in several other American cities. As a result it became established in the repertoire of American orchestras before it did in Tchaikovsky's native Russia. It is now beloved all over the world (whether or not you or I happen to like it in all its aspects - in fact, I do!).

As I have said in the past, good music has to have some qualities which transcend an individual performance. If that weren't true, there would be literally no "good music." Any work that has been performed enough times will eventually get a poor performance. In those cases, we don't criticize the work, we, quite properly, criticize the performance. :)




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Sat Aug 25, 2007 7:52 am

Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:Sometimes, some of them are wrong, too. A famous example is that of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. Tchaikovsky played a piano reduction of the score for the famous and influential conductor of the time, Hans von Bulow, who promptly denounced the work as "unplayable" among other less than favorable comments. Tchaikovsky took the work to Boston, where it was premiered by the BSO. Most critics (and the audience) there praised it. It was then played in several other American cities. As a result it became established in the repertoire of American orchestras before it did in Tchaikovsky's native Russia. It is now beloved all over the world (whether or not you or I happen to like it in all its aspects - in fact, I do!).

Something was niggling at my mind about this part of my previous post. I then remembered that it was Tchaikovsky's mentor and fellow faculty member at the Moscow Conservatory, Nicolas Rubinstein, who pronounced the 1st Piano Concerto unplayable, not von Bulow. In fact, von Bulow was the pianist and conductor to whom Tchaikovsky sent the score after Rubinstein rejected it. von Bulow praised the score and premiered it in Boston during an American tour. Interestingly, both Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein later acknowledged errors of judgment. Rubinstein took up the work and played it enthusiastically. For his part, Tchaikovsky made some changes in the solo part in later editions, in part to address Rubinstein's criticisms.

As I've said in the past here in the Board, I strive for accuracy all the time here on the Board, but don't always achieve it. :D
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Mon Aug 27, 2007 9:19 am

I want to thank all the people who have contributed to this thread. Most of the ideas have been penetrating and thought-provoking, at least for me. I will now undertake (with a certain amount of trepidation :D), trying to summarize again some of the qualities of good music which have been suggested:

1. Memorable melody
2. Popularity
3. Good composition (defined, in part, as exhibiting sufficient complexity to allow us to find new things in the work each time we hear it)
4. An element of "unpredictability" within the confines of form
5. A willingness by musically knowledgeable people (performers, conductors, composers, critics, teachers) to make sure the music is heard.
6. Performance quality (and all the things which go into a good performance)
7. "Substance" or "depth"
8. A quality which encourages multiple interpretations in multiple times and cultures (universality)

As I pointed out earlier, "I believe that much "good" music in most genres will share many of the same qualities (attributes), though not necessarily to the same degree or in the same relative amounts. Moreover, they will interact with one another. For example, in a work that has a strong and memorable melody, our reaction to the melody may catch our attention before the composition as a whole does. In other works, we may admire the structure and creativeness of the composing more than the melody at first, but come to love the abstract and unsingable melody as we learn the work better. We respect both works but for different reasons (and in different ways at different levels of understanding), even though we sub-consciously consider some of the same factors in evaluating them. " We all can cite examples where one or more of the above qualities might be of less importance in a given case, but I suspect they all play some role in our thinking. Anything else that should be added to the list or that I left out?
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Postby Stretto » Mon Aug 27, 2007 6:08 pm

What about music that lasted because it was written around, during, or for a specific event, time period, triumph or struggle of a society or group at a certain point? Such music would have signified a certain meaning at the time and helps us commemorate or remember that time and also speaks on new levels over time, one example off the top of my head would be the Star Spangled Banner.



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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Mon Aug 27, 2007 7:06 pm

Stretto wrote:What about music that lasted because it was written around, during, or for a specific event, time period, triumph or struggle of a society or group at a certain point? Such music would have signified a certain meaning at the time and helps us commemorate or remember that time and also speaks on new levels over time, one example off the top of my head would be the Star Spangled Banner.

Boy that's a tough one. Anthems like the Star Spangled Banner are certainly remembered, but is it because they are good music or because they are imbued with nationalistic significance separate from their musical significance? The music for the Star-Spangled Banner was originally a British drinking song, and, as I understand it, a not terribly significant one in that role.

Even more difficult to characterize might be works like the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture or Beethoven's Wellington's Victory. The 1812 is a popular favorite for "pops" concerts and 4th of July and is heard with some frequency. Wellington's Victory is rarely played (though available in several recordings, often paired with the 1812 Overture). Although it has a similar character to the 1812 Overture, it is considered one of Beethoven's "poorer" works. Why has one become a fixture at some concerts and the other almost unknown? I suppose one could make the argument that the 1812 is better music by virtue of the fact that it has hung around, but I'm not all that sure that such an argument really means much. Wellington's Victory bears all the hallmarks of a Beethoven work; indeed, if you've never heard it before, chances are you would identify it almost immediately as a Beethoven work when you did hear it.
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Postby 112-1182392787 » Tue Aug 28, 2007 7:23 am

One musician's humourous reaction to predictable patterns in music, their pervasiveness - but also this is an aspect of the popularity of recognizable tunes. Pachelbel's Canon is loved by many, sells, the bane of musicians who have to play it too often. However, the chords of this canon are also found in many popular pieces of music in many genres ... a commonality. Pachelbel Rant :D
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Aug 28, 2007 7:54 am

pianissimo wrote:One musician's humourous reaction to predictable patterns in music, their pervasiveness - but also this is an aspect of the popularity of recognizable tunes. Pachelbel's Canon is loved by many, sells, the bane of musicians who have to play it too often. However, the chords of this canon are also found in many popular pieces of music in many genres ... a commonality.

This borrowing of material between and within genres has been mentioned before in this thread. Rock and big-band music have borrowed extensively from the classical literature. For example, the introductory theme of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, 1st Mvt., has appeared in a big-band tune, "Tonight We Love", if I remember correctly. Tchaikovsky borrowed several themes from Russian folk music for the Piano Concerto No. 1. Similarly, the beautiful melody from the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No, 2, 2nd Mvt. was the music for the Eric Carmen song All by Myself in the 70's. Many, many such examples could be cited.

The interesting thing is that, to my way of thinking, the works which borrow themes are often not as good as the original. That "fact" suggests that, while melody can be borrowed and "re-purposed", that the new work lacks elements of the original that made the original "good music" (i.e. that a good melody alone is often insufficient to make a memorable and lasting piece of music).

As I was thinking about an earlier post I made, it occurred to me that one aspect is an interesting topic in itself. What is it that makes a reasonably musically knowledgeable person able to recognize an unfamiliar work as being "a Beethoven" or "a Mozart"? Each composer seems to have individual characteristics that, as a whole, mark his (her) music. For example, Beethoven's frequent use of syncopation was fairly rare for other composers of his time and could be said to be one pointer to "Beethoven style". If people are interested, we could start another thread on this topic.
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